Washington State's Hoh Rain Forest Revels in 'Wet, Wild Ballet'

Article excerpt

HOH RAIN FOREST, Olympic National Park -- Diamond drips of moisture cling to the tips of branches, and a soft drizzle eases from a thick quilt of clouds overhead.

"This is girlie rain!" scoffs Jon Preston, as he heads deeper into the rain forest.

He ought to know. Lead rain-forest interpreter for Olympic National Park, Preston knows wet when he sees it, in a place that can get 12 feet of rain per year.

Preston poured more than 24 inches of rain out of his rain gauge at the Hoh in January -- more than 4 inches above average, and he wasn't the only one who got a good soaking. Other areas on the Olympic Peninsula got socked with 170 to 200 percent of average rainfall in January.

Here in the Hoh, all that moisture is sopped into mosses and other epiphytes -- plants growing on top of other plants -- that pad the big-leaf maples.

In the winter rainy season, Preston likes to knock on the trunk of a Sitka spruce to hear its fat, resonant voice. "Sounds like a ripe melon, it's so full of water," he says, rapping a giant spruce looming by the trail.

Facing west, and with no mountains between this low-elevation forest and the Pacific, westerlies barrel across a vast fetch of the sea, bringing storm after storm.

"The atmosphere is a wild ballet," Preston says. "We get it all: Pineapple express. Frontal system after frontal system, lined up on the Pacific like a platoon of soldiers. Mid-latitude cyclones."

Trees can grow to epic heights, towering more than 200 feet and living more than 500 years. Rain begets more rain: Moss moves water by osmosis, cell by cell, until its green tips glisten with drops with nowhere else to go, and fall to the ground. Moss rain.

Cloaked and draped in green, and glazed with moisture, every surface is wet and alive with something -- or decaying to make way for the next generation of life.

"I like the intricacy of all the lives of various kinds, the hidden realms and wheels within wheels," says Ruth Kirk, 85, of Lacey, Wash., co-author of "The Olympic Rain Forest, An Ecological Web," the classic text on the forest's ecology. …